Being a professional who is also a human means that there is sometimes cause to think about whether what I’m doing is benefitting the world in any way.
As a recovering management consultant I see that for most of my career I’ve been the figurative doctor dispensing cures with no judgement of the patient. As with real doctors, some of the patients were genuinely ill, whilst others wanted some type of augmentation. I’m not sure if I changed the world, but most patients by far seemed to go out in a better state than when they came in. Nevertheless it was time to ask the question - why am I doing this?
Why is a good place to start but not enough by itself
I will attempt to explain why in this article
Why why? - Exposing and using what is underlying
Some of the work of management consulting is an analytical search for truth i.e. the identification of root causes of issues - why is this happening?
Other work is focused on a different why: influencing – answering the question why should I change or what’s in it for me (Wiifm)?
More broadly, asking “why” is a well-established technique in industrial management (e.g. Toyota Production System and “5 whys”) and in behavioural sciences, counselling and even a skill of young children…that we seem to forget as adults - becoming blinkered to imaginary constraints and ways of working
Why can cut through habits and inertia and expose inconsistencies.
Why can also, when not principled, lead to misrepresentation, misalignment and manipulation.
If you can understand why people do what they do then you can craft a response in substance and / or form to influence them towards an objective. Given this, marketers, political parties and other organisations are also keen practitioners of the whys of people / consumers / voters etc.
Of course the outcomes sought by the influencer may or may not be in fact good for the individual being influenced. It is common in professional work to optimise for one party, which may mean that other stakeholders are worse off (i.e. win-lose). The ins and outs of this are the subject of my next post: The responsibility of professionals.
Three years ago I inadvertently set out on an informal but what became a dogged quest to define what a good life was in the general case and in my case specifically.
This involved plenty of discovery and rummaging around in my personal “whys”:
- Why do I work (in this job)?
- Why do I spend my energy, time and money in the way that I do?
- Why do I slip back on being healthy?
- Why is everything clear and good on holiday, but complicated and uncertain when I return?
- And so on…
The answers were illuminating but not life-changing in isolation (I'll tell you why in a second).
Think about why you like the job you do (or not), the reasons behind how you spend your time. Why do you do what you do in every aspect of life?
You may find, like a lot of people, that when you look at the reason why you do things you are expressing what is important to you: family / personal relationships, spirituality / faith, work, experiences and health (including being physically attractive).
If you dig deeper you may even begin to touch on your core values and beliefs – maybe you seek to make a difference or you value learning or creativity etc. You may also find that the reason you do things is to pursue status, money, possessions etc. You could find that emotional reasons drive what you do – either positive emotions e.g. happiness, or negative ones e.g. generalised fear or fear of change
You’ve made progress by identifying a list of “raw whys” - this is a good start.
Moving beyond why
You’ve been a detective in your own life and so it's time to continue your investigation in two ways:
- Monitor how much of your energy, time and money are directed towards the whys: what is really important to you, your ego drivers, your emotional drivers
- For a day or a week pay attention to all of the media and messages that are surrounding you: TV, social media, advertisements, your employer, government, news, people around you and so on. Which of your whys are being hit by these messages? Does the objective of that message really match the spirit of your why, and improve it?
What sort of things did you find out?
This exercise is asking: do the practices and outcomes align with the words – do the what and the how align with the why?
I have been doing this for myself on an off for the last couple of years, and this is what I’ve found:
- My energy, time and money were often not aligned with the most important whys - I worked hard since challenge and learning are core values of mine - yet so were family and personal relationships (and I was travelling 40%+ of the time). I was motivated not to change, by fear of change (ironic for someone whose job it is to change others), and my higher order whys - what I thought I could achieve in terms of life purpose were not being addressed. The current what and most important whys were in conflict
- We are being saturated by messages that are tugging at our heart strings and playing on our hopes and fears (our whys). These messages can come from organisations or even well meaning people. I found that often these messages are not only irrelevant in practice to my (and others) whys but sometimes destructive to what was good for me / us in life. For example a pretty common message is that it's important and expected to move up and earn more. Why - when this seemed to result in the point above?
These insights didn't particularly feel good but at least I could see them clearly. So what to do?
Switching on to what and how
We already started a bit on the what in the last section in terms of what is the current state of the situation. This is initially cataloguing what you see, then checking if things are really as they appear as objectively as possible.
It's often useful when performing an assessment to have something to compare to - I call this "what good looks like" - a descriptive set of characteristics and measures for how things should work.
I went through a process of codifying this as part of a personal approach that I call The Good Life. Once I'd done that I could test the approach out and also identify the gap between where I was and where I wanted to be. Finally, I could take actions to close the gap. If you stop at Why it can be disempowering - unless you can align your what and how.
An unintended benefit on being clear of the specific whats associated with my whys is as a simplification tool, filter and antidote to the slew of information coming at us every day. It helped me to regain control of my attention and direct that to what is important. For examples I've cut my time on social media and news type sites by 90%.
It seemed that society's whys and whats were also misaligned. The way things are working is not aligned with what I think we believe a good society should work like - and the messages around this conflict with the reality. We risk being disempowered and feeling that the situation is helpless - unless we can articulate and get others to align on the what, and to put the how into place.
Why is important but not sufficient for a good life or for a good society (despite what we think Nietzsche may have said). Actions must match words and be also be right (in terms of what should be).
Working out your whys, but also whats and hows is an effective (and perhaps the only) way to realign your life to what is important to you, to get control back over your attention and to make things good.
Thanks for reading and have a good one!